Rikers Island staff ignored prisoner as he hun himself in cell, video shows – NBC New York

Warning:  This story contains images and themes that may be upsetting.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. There is hope.

Video obtained by the NBC New York I-Team shows Rikers Island correction officers failing to intervene — for nearly eight minutes — as an inmate hangs himself in their plain view. NBC New York’s Chris Glorioso reports. (Video produced by NBC’s Linda Gaudino.)

Video obtained by the NBC New York I-Team shows Rikers Island correction officers failing to intervene — for nearly eight minutes — as an inmate hangs himself in their plain view.

The family of Nicholas Feliciano, the inmate who attempted suicide, shared the disturbing images with News 4 as part of a desperate call for jail reform.

“He was hanging off a hook. And you got these officers just walking by and standing there,” said Madeline Feliciano, the former prisoner’s grandmother. “Who in their right state of mind does that? Who does that!”

Nicholas Feliciano’s suicide attempt took place on the night before Thanksgiving 2019, but the video is only now being released after the former inmate’s family settled a civil lawsuit against the City of New York for a record $28.7 million. 

David Rankin, the lead civil rights attorney who sued the city on behalf of Feliciano, said the payout is believed to be the largest pre-verdict settlement paid to a single plaintiff in city history.

“I mean the reason we released this video was that we want to shock people out of their lanes and their calcified thinking about Rikers Island,” said Rankin. “I mean, you can describe what happed with Nicholas, but until you see it and really understand what happened in that 8 minutes and before, the impact just isn’t the same.”

NBC New York is not showing those portions of the video recordings that depict the actual suicide attempt. 

Over the course of the 7 minutes and 51 seconds in which Feliciano hung motionless in his cell, at least seven members of the jail staff walked by without entering to check on him. Some of the correction officers can clearly be seen turning their heads to look inside the cell — and then walking away. When Feliciano was finally cut down he was revived by medics, but he had already suffered severe and permanent brain damage from oxygen deprivation.

According to a Board of Correction report released in 2021, members of the jail staff told investigators they believed Feliciano had made a “manipulative gesture” and was faking his suicide attempt. The report concluded that a series of institutional failures led up to the jail’s botched response to Feliciano’s suicide attempt. That included:

  • A suicide-risk screening failed to detect Feliciano’s likelihood of self-harm despite his lengthy history of suicidal behavior in City custody.
  • Irregularities relating to Feliciano’s access to psychiatric medications.
  • Significant periods of time Feliciano spent in Department of Correction custody as a teenager.
  • Pending disciplinary charges against the on-duty Intake Captain for failure to supervise and failure to provide medical assistance.

The Bronx district attorney ultimately filed criminal charges against that Intake Captain, Terry Henry, and three other correction officers. Two of them, C.O. Mark Wilson and C.O. Daniel Fullerton, pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. Henry and C.O. Kenneth Hood have pleaded not guilty to felony reckless endangerment charges and are awaiting trial.

James George Frankie, the defense attorney for Henry, said his client witnessed Feliciano agitated and playing with a sweatshirt that was hanging from the ceiling of his cell. But he argued Henry had no duty to remove the garment hanging from the ceiling because departmental guidelines advise staff not to engage a “hostile inmate” inside his cell.

After Henry walked away from Feliciano’s cell and went to his office, his attorney said it was the responsibility of subordinate correction officers to intervene when — and if — they saw Feliciano tie that sweatshirt around his neck.

“I think the officers should not have waited some seven minutes. If you see that, you’re supposed to go in immediately,” Frankie said. “But I’m not making a final judgement on the conduct of the officers.”

Once Henry was notified of the possible suicide attempt he entered the cell and cut Feliciano down. 

“He’s actually the one who saved this guy’s life,” Frankie said of Henry.

Attorneys for the other correction officers seen in the video ignoring Feliciano did not immediately respond to the I-Team’s request for comment.

In all, six jail staff members were suspended or charged with procedural violations after the incident. One correction officer was terminated. Two others jail employees resigned. 

The FDNY reviewed the conduct of a team of EMTs who passed by the attempted suicide as they rendered aid to a different inmate. Those medics were cleared of wrongdoing and continue to serve as members of the FDNY.

“The EMTs in question were engaged with their original patient and were preparing for transport as they passed through the intake area with a DOC escort,” said Jim Long, an FDNY spokesman.

Annais Morales, the press secretary for the Department of Correction, said jail administrators made significant improvements to their suicide prevention strategies in the four years after Feliciano’s attempt at self-harm.

“The Department has increased training related to mental illness and suicide prevention, increased the presence of and training related to naloxone, provides support to people in custody who demonstrate self-harm behaviors, and made physical improvements to jails, including installing anti-ligature air register covers in housing units,” Morales wrote in a statement to the I-Team.

But attorneys for the Feliciano family say video of the suicide attempt demonstrates a breakdown in the very culture of Rikers Island – that goes beyond lapses in training.

“It’s a disregard for his basic human dignity,” said Regina Powers, one of the civil rights lawyers who sued the city on Feliciano’s behalf. “We talk about treating people more humanely. At Rikers Island I would say they are not treated as humans at all.”

“We’re putting people in a place that everybody knows is a substandard, unconstitutional hellhole,” said Jonathan Moore another member of the legal team.

After years of oversight by a federal monitor, last summer, the U.S. Department of Justice called for a full-fledged takeover of Rikers Island.  A federal judge is currently considering that possibility and could decide the question of federal receivership in the coming months.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. There is hope.

NBC New York’s Linda Gaudino contributed to this report.

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